Four years between studio albums is a long gap by Ahmad Jamal's standards. Not that the 87-year-old pianist has been idle since the widely acclaimed Saturday Morning
(Jazz Village, 2013). He's released two live albums in that timeLive at The Olympia
(Jazz Village, 2014) featuring Yusef Lateef
and Live in Marciac 2014
(Jazz Village, 2015)and remains a major draw on the world's most prestigious jazz stages
. Though Marseille
bears many of Jamal's hallmarksold songs reworked, standards, a balladthe pianist still has, remarkably enough, the ability to surprise.
French rapper Abd al Malik's recital of Jamal's poetic homage "Marseille" marks new territory for the pianist. If it seems like an odd coupling it's worth remembering that hip-hop artists, rappers and producers such as De La Soul, will.i.am, Nas, Ab-Soul, Big Daddy Kane and Jay-Z, to name a few, have long appreciated Jamal. Amongst jazz musicians perhaps only Herbie Hancock
has been sampled more frequently. It's arguably the album's standout track, with Jamal's understated elegance and gently coursing rhythms from Herlin Riley
, Manolo Badrena
and James Cammack
cradling Abd Al Malik's romantic delivery of this declaration of love.
The instrumental version of "Marseille" sees Reily maintain a snappy martial tattoo as Jamal gradually explores -his little melodic motifs flaring into rumbling waves that rise dramatically before falling just as quickly. It's a meditative number whose tensions are never fully resolved until Jamal's trademark closing note, played in unison with Cammack -returning to the fold having been quietly let go in 2012
after twenty nine years serving Jamal's music.
Cammack's contribution is significant, intuitively knowing when to color the spaces and when to ignore the pockets of silent gravitas that Jamal sews. At times the bassist shadows the pianist closely, at others he stirs the pot quietly in the background. It's doubtful if Jamal has leant on a more simpatico bassist, or a more soulful one, at any time since Israel Crosby
in the pianist's celebrated trio of the late 1950s/early 1960s.
Ostinato-cum-walking bass underpins "Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child," a jaunty take on the slavery-era spiritual, with Riley injecting a little New Orleans spirit. Lithely cantering bass lines play counterpoint to Jamal's more fragmented approach on "Pots en verre," the pianist drawing deeply from a broad vocabulary that's alternatively light and scurrying, then dark and punchy, minimalist then rhapsodic. Badrena's congas, cow bells and intermittent swishing chimes percolate throughout, and in general, the former Weather Report
percussionist informs the music greatly.
Jamal drives "Autumn Leaves" with rhythmic panache, bass and percussion to the fore, though neither this nor the more animated "Baalbeck" are the most memorable versions of tunes that Jamal has revisited time and again. More satisfying the atmospheric ballad "I Came to see You/You Were Not There," whose simple melody keeps pulling Jamal back like a current from his sweeping embellishments, buoyed by spare bass, deft brushwork and eclectic percussive touches.
After the initial pianistic flourish, the third version of "Marseille," sung in French then English by Mina Agossi
, settles into sultry chanson mode, with Jamal delivering his most lyrically refined playing of the set, punctuated by robust exclamations. Marseille
may not go down as one of Jamal's most essential albums, but the title track's haunting caress, which lingers long afterwards, marks the song out as a classic in Jamal's seven-decade-long songbook.